Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Big Sugar's sweet deal sours Big Candy

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WASHINGTON -- A spoonful of sugar may help the medicine go down, but around here it has led to the emergency extraction of our seven-year-old daughter's cratered, infected, pus-oozing molar -- "It's the worst day of my life!" moaned she -- and an increasingly sour battle of lobbyists and lollipops up on Capitol Hill.

First, the legislative side of the story.

For more than 70 years, the U.S. government has set a minimum price for domestically grown sugar that the growers of every other major crop -- corn, wheat, soybeans, marijuana -- do not enjoy. This policy pleases farmers in Louisiana, Hawaii and Florida (sugar cane) and North Dakota, Michigan and Idaho (sugar beets), but infuriates the nation's bakers, confectioners, chocolatiers, ice cream churners, fruit canners, spaghetti saucers and peanut-butter grinders, not to mention the business groups that oppose any sort of federal intrusion into private enterprise.

Every five years, Congress is required to write an omnibus Farm Bill that establishes, among many other items, the guaranteed price for domestic sugar. This spring, they are beginning the whole exhausting process again, while enriching the manifold lawyers, consultants, social-media spinners, and public-relations attack dogs who sprout here like weeds after rain.

Big Candy, as it often is styled, would like to import unlimited amounts of sugar, much of it from Brazil -- though none of it from Alberta's sugar-beet farms -- at the lowest possible price. Indicative of their position was a recent op-ed on Yahoo! Finance that argued, Sugar Bailout Is Govt. Policy at Its Worst: Hypocritical and Stupid.

The farmers fired back last week with a full-page ad in a Capitol Hill tabloid that hollered BIG CANDY'S GREED: "Why are Big Candy executives lobbying Congress to outsource America's sugar production? To boost their already bloated profit margins."

Struggling to understand Washington's increasingly bitter and expensive War of the Sweeteners, I spoke with a man named Philip Hayes from the American Sugar Alliance.

"I've heard of Big Oil and Big Data and the Notorious B.I.G.," I told him. "But I never heard of Big Candy and Big Sugar before. Which one are you?"

"We're Big Sugar," Hayes affably replied. "We have been battling just about every year since 1980, because the confectioners are looking to push prices down to levels that honestly would bankrupt U.S. sugar producers."

Hayes said that even if Big Candy were allowed to import as much Brazilian, Dominican and Philippine sugar as it desired, "the price of a candy bar wouldn't move -- there's less than two cents' worth of sugar in a one-dollar candy bar."

"Is this a gentlemanly dispute?" I inquired. "Or do you sprinkle granulated sugar on them while they blast you with Hershey Kisses?"

"We don't throw sugar at 'em because you'd be crazy to bring a white powder up to Capitol Hill," the lobbyist said.

(On the sidelines in this bellicose sucrose dispute are the giant soda bottlers. They abandoned actual sugar for their non-diet drinks in the 1980s in favour of high-fructose corn syrup.)

Wholesale beet and cane prices are down by 50 per cent in recent months, Big Sugar noted, trying to justify government relief to save family beet farms from foreclosure

"It's true, prices have fallen," retorted Big Candy in a broadside entitled UNWRAP THE FACTS, "but from an all-time record high that produced incredible windfall profits for Big Sugar."

"What's your favourite candy?" I asked Hayes.

"I love Mr. Goodbars," he answered.

"I kinda like gummy Life Savers," countered Jennifer Cummings, a spokeswoman for the Coalition for Sugar Reform (a.k.a. Big Candy), proving that the two sides don't agree on anything.

"The current policy was created during the Great Depression to ensure that domestic sugar growers had protection against imports," she said. "Since it's no longer the Great Depression, it's our view that current policy hasn't necessarily kept up with the current market situation."

Seeking neutral ground in the conflict, I visited the U.S. Department of Agriculture and interviewed an expert who asked not to be identified. This person confirmed that bakers, confectioners, etc. would save only about two-tenths of a penny per pound should they succeed in getting Congress to drop the subsidy.

"All this lobbying and arguing for two-tenths of a cent?" I mused.

"But that two-tenths is profit," the expert said.

"What do you put in your coffee?" I asked the agriculturalist.

"I don't drink coffee," he or she replied.

This brings us to our own poor little Toothless Joe, who has found out the hard way that she should dab a little bit of syrup on her waffle in the morning, rather than drown her Eggo in a flooded slough of goo.

Miss Lizzie is not alone in her predilection. On a class trip to a supermarket last term, a guide pointed out that the average can of cola contains the equivalent of 10 teaspoons of sugar.

"Cool!" the first graders squealed.

One year later and one molar lighter, I asked my daughter what she had learned from the worst day of her life.

"I learned that sometimes, when you try a new experience, it's really scary. But after you do it, it's a good thing that you did."

"Does that mean you want to get another tooth pulled?"

"No," said the extractee. "It hurts!"

Allen Abel is a Brooklyn-born Canadian journalist based in Washington, D.C.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 23, 2013 J6

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